Understanding the Jesus story – 7 March 2021 3rd Sunday Lent

If there is one incident in Jesus’ life that leads us to question his judgment, the story of him taking a whip and angrily driving people out of the temple must rank as a strong contender. We have heard in recent weeks that Jesus can be forthright in challenging people – even calling pharisees ‘hypocrites’ to their faces! But our major image is of a patient and forgiving Jesus rather than someone striking out at people with a raging temper.

So, how are we to understand this story? A good place to start is another story of Jesus visiting the Jerusalem temple with his mother and father when he was a twelve-year old boy. On that occasion, Jesus becomes so caught up by the temple experience, he misses the caravan taking his family back to Nazareth. When his parents realise Jesus is missing, they hasten back to find him among the temple priests and elders, engaging with them about the meaning of the Scriptures.

Now, for traditional Israelites the temple was the holiest of all places on earth, enabling people to experience the presence of the living God in their lives in an unsurpassed way. This must have been Jesus’ boyhood experience, as is evident in his response to his confused parents: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49).

So, when Jesus returns to the temple some twenty years later and finds it filled with hawkers, merchants and other traders, he is incensed that greed and money-lust have turned his ‘Father’s house’ into a marketplace. However, rather than directing his anger to the little people who are simply trying to make a living, surely Jesus should have confronted the temple priests who no doubt benefited financially from this defilement of God’s house.

Jesus has this opportunity to respond to the chief priests when they challenge him over his table-turning, whip-lashing behaviour. In answer to their question: “On what authority do you do this?” Jesus’ strange response confounds everyone: “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again in three days.”

Somehow, this is a moment of insight for Jesus. He begins to realise his mission of communicating God’s love and forgiveness will result in the destruction of the other temple – his own body – on a cross. Yet, God’s glory will always shine through and triumph beyond suffering, cruelty and death itself.

This is the paradox St Paul writes about in his letter to the Corinthians. He realises how preaching a crucified Christ is folly to Jews and Greeks alike. Yet Paul also knows we must acknowledge our own sinfulness and stupidity if we are to experience God’s power and wisdom.

Too often, we are like the temple traders, busy with our own pursuits rather than seekers of the living God. Too often, we ignore God’s covenant because we are afraid to witness to a crucified-and-risen Christ who heals our weakness and failures with divine love and mercy.

 Gerard Hall SM

© Majellan Media 2021